Israel to plan West Bank settler housing project by Bethlehem, dubbed E2.
(photo credit: PEACE NOW)
Israel intends to draft plans for new construction – possibly as many as 2,500 homes – on a hill in the Efrat settlement south of Bethlehem.
The project has been dubbed E2 by its left-wing opponents, including Peace Now, who hold that it would prevent any further development of Bethlehem, the growth of which is already stymied by the Jewish Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa on the north side of the Palestinian city.
The Efrat settlement has long sought permission to build on Givat HaEitam, with little success. Settlers renewed their campaign for construction on that hilltop in September, after Efrat resident Ari Fuld, 45, was stabbed to death by a Palestinian terrorist while shopping at the Gush Etzion junction.
The Civil Administration did allow Efrat to create an agricultural farm on the site. On December 26, the administration posted a notice on its website that it intended to start planning for homes on 118 hectares (291 acres) of state land on the hilltop. A portion of the property was purchased by Jews prior to the creation of the state in 1948.
Upon instructions from the High Court of Justice, the Civil Administration notified Peace Now and Palestinians in the area of its intentions to develop the hilltop, which is connected to Efrat by a thin strip of property.
The Givat HaEitam project had ground to a halt in 2016, while the administration sought a feasible access route to the site, which is surrounded by private Palestinian property. The legal understanding at the time prevented use of Palestinian property for such a road.
Since then, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit has said that in certain circumstances, private Palestinian property could be used for access roads to Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. It is unclear if that understanding would apply in this case, or if another alternative has been found for a road.
The current, sudden movement on the project also comes as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeks to curry favor with right-wing voters.
Israel holds that Efrat, which is part of the Gush Etzion bloc, will be part of the country’s final borders in any final status agreement with the Palestinians.
But Palestinians have argued that the land on which Efrat is located must be part of the future borders of their state, and that the property is necessary for territorial contiguity and the expansion of Bethlehem.
Peace Now said that Israel had “crossed a redline” and that the project “could deal a fatal blow to the chances for peace” and the possibility of a two-state resolution to the conflict.
It has described the project as akin to E1, an unbuilt area of Ma’aleh Adumim, which the US has pressured Israel not to develop out of fear of its impact on the viability of a two-state solution. This project, Peace Now said, could have the same impact on the Gush Etzion region as E1 has on the Ma’aleh Adumim area.
Besides the Beitar Illit settlement, Efrat is one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in Gush Etzion. It is also the second largest community in the bloc, with 9,116 residents in 2017, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.
In the last two years, Efrat has constructed 1,110 apartment units. If an additional 2,500 are constructed in Givat HaEitam, the project could transform the community into a new settler city. To date, there are only four settlements which are designated as cities; Modi’in Illit, Beitar Illit, Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel.
Peace Now said that: “It is no accident that this [announcement was posted] during the Christmas holidays, when the entire Western world is on vacation, and immediately after the elections are announced.”